Obama’s second chance at Prague nuke agenda

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

The US electorate has spoken, and most of the international diplomats, academics, and others with whom I spoke on the day after our presidential election on 6 November breathed a sigh of relief that the stewardship of the world’s (still) sole superpower will remain in safe hands for another four years. The rest of the world famously backed Barack Obama, so while much of the satisfaction I heard about the Democrat’s re-election pertained particularly to the nuclear-policy matters being addressed in my various meetings, I also found myself, as an American citizen abroad, congratulated more broadly.

The election turned on domestic issues, and even the presidential debate that was supposed to be dedicated to foreign policy pivoted back to the American economy and education system. Nevertheless, the question that I have been asked most is how Obama will use his renewed lease on the White House to address global issues. In my area of specialisation on arms control and non-proliferation, everyone agrees there is much to be done. Unfortunately, there seems little scope for Obama to do it. And, of course, Iran looms large on his agenda.

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Romney’s Italian Job

Mitt Romney

By Guest Blogger Giacomo Tagiuri

In the final days of the US election campaign, my home country of Italy has stepped into a cameo role. It is, to be sure, the role of a villain. Republican candidate Mitt Romney has invoked Italy as the kind of bad example that America should do everything possible to avoid. Even so, as an Italian accustomed to a diminishing presence in the international debate, I have been amused and even a little proud.

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Tweeting up a storm

Twitter user ComfortablySmug apologises for his Tweet claiming that the New York Stock Exchange was under waterBy Guest Blogger Ryan Connelly

If truth is the first casualty of war, the recent controversy over false Twitter rumours about superstorm Sandy proves that veracity can also take a battering in all types of national emergency. Has a lesson been learned before tomorrow’s US presidential election about misinformation campaigns, or should we be on our guard for something similar?

CNN and the Weather Channel were both embarrassed last Monday night after they reported in Sandy’s wake that the New York Stock Exchange was under three feet of water. Although both channels cited other sources, they soon retracted the information when it became apparent that the original source for the story was mischievous Twitter user @ComfortablySmug. The account also shared the false ‘news’ that the local utility provider, Con Edison, planned to shut off all power in New York City and that state governor Andrew Cuomo was trapped in Manhattan and taken to a secure shelter – before Con Edison and reporters on the ground began to question and contradict him.

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Blue-sky thinking after Sandy

President Obama waves as he boards Air Force One.

President Obama waves as he boards Air Force One.

By Dana Allin, Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs

I type these words from a sunlit kitchen while looking at mostly clear skies over Capitol Hill in Washington. Last week, the northeastern United States was pounded by Hurricane Sandy, a weather event unprecedented in nature and vastness. The presidential candidates paused for a couple days of recovery, but of course the election campaign, now in its final few days, couldn’t really stop.

The city is pretty much back to normal – if the manic days before deciding the next president can be considered normal. And my students and I remain preoccupied with what the polls will bring. I’m here in DC, among other purposes, to lead a graduate seminar and workshop on Survival at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Editing a journal like Survival is usually one part intellectual endeavour to two parts tradesman routine. However, it certainly helps to have to explain yourself – explain what it is you think you are trying to do – to ten probing and thoughtful graduate students from four countries. (About half are American; the other half European.)

They are, naturally enough for scholars at foreign-policy school in Washington, full of ideas, and some of them will be guest-blogging on Voices from this week. I hope you find their posts as thoughtful and entertaining as I do.

Key question for the next US president

2012 debate banner

In the run-up to the second presidential debate, to be held in a town-hall-debate format in New York state this evening, we thought it worthwhile drawing attention to a contribution by the IISS’s Mark Fitzpatrick to a piece in Canada’s Global Brief magazine. Asked what key question he would put to the candidates, the director of the institute’s non-proliferation and disarmament programme queried whether they would ‘launch another war in the Middle East in order to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons’.

Tehran’s ‘actual production of nuclear weapons can be deterred’, Fitzpatrick believed, but the potential for diplomatic miscalculation was rife.

Read more of his thoughts on the judgement calls the next president might have to make on Iran, including  ‘whether to join an Israeli attack, despite the huge drawbacks – including that it may not set back the timelines more than two to three years’.

Romney wins debate by ignoring much larger one

Mitt Romney

By Dana Allin, Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs

The collective punditry has rendered a near-unanimous verdict on the presidential debate in Denver last night: Mitt Romney won it. Romney was sharp, engaged and composed – maybe a tad over-aggressive at times but clearly comfortable in his own skin. President Obama looked – to many of us, anyway – like he would have much preferred to be somewhere else.

This was no real surprise, except perhaps in the magnitude of Romney’s advantage. Despite many other flaws as a candidate, Romney had proved himself a strong debater against his Republican primary opponents. Set debates have never been Obama’s strength; he tends to behave like a professor in a seminar, rather than a debater prepared for battle.

How much it matters is another question. The narrative of September had been harsh for the Romney campaign. The Republican had a flat nominating convention; Obama’s was judged a resounding success (notwithstanding the president’s own rather flat acceptance speech). In the weeks that followed, Romney stumbled through a knee-jerk attack on the White House in the very hours that US diplomats were under attack and dying in the Middle East. Then surfaced the secretly recorded video of Romney telling wealthy supporters that

There are 47% of the people who will vote for the President no matter what … who are dependent on government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Attacking almost half of Americans was unlikely to win him new supporters, and polling evidence shows that it didn’t. Moreover, though the margins have remained close, Romney had not pulled ahead in polling averages since the beginning of the year, a highly unusual problem for a challenger. In key swing states like Ohio, meanwhile, Obama has built what look like insurmountable leads.

Romney’s supporters will be heartened by last night’s performance, which may well resuscitate his campaign. Historical evidence speaks against turning a debate win into an electoral win, however. To take one of many examples: former vice president Walter Mondale was widely viewed as the winner against an apparently distracted Ronald Reagan in their first 1984 debate; Reagan went on to take 49 out of 50 states. (It is true that 73-year-old Reagan in a second debate delivered a decisive blow with the joke: ‘I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.’ But this only reinforced the truth that substantial mastery of issues in a formal debate is rather beside the point).

Romney’s apparent victory carried a certain irony insofar as he probably won this debate by abandoning a very substantial philosophical and policy debate that the 2012 presidential campaign has – against many expectations – actually provided. It concerns genuine and deep-seated disagreements about the relationship of state and society in the United States. Republicans have latched on to an Obama speech of some months ago in which he argued – echoing Harvard law professor and now Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren – that individuals’ economic success rests on a broader community effort. Businesses are possible because of the infrastructure, the education, the regulation and the social safety net that only government can provide. Such an argument only restated the consensus philosophy that emerged from FDR’s New Deal response to the economic crisis of the 1930s. Obama in this particular speech had slightly garbled the message – so he could be represented, tendentiously and out of context, as denying all credit to businessmen and -women for their own success. But leaving this misrepresentation aside, there remains a real philosophical divide. Conservatives seem genuinely offended by the (in historical terms rather mild) communitarian instincts of the president and his party. Romney’s ‘47%’ riff was an extreme expression of this underlying belief that real freedom is a matter of economic freedom and economic success, and that both are threatened by Obama’s commitment to the welfare state and progressive taxation.

One reason that Romney won last night’s staged debate is that he left this underlying debate aside. It was the ‘Return of Massachusetts Mitt,’ as Jonathan Chait put it: a return of the former Governor’s at-least-temperamental moderation for which Obama and his team were arguably unprepared. Romney is still unlikely to win on 6 November, but if he does win it will be by successfully burying that larger debate – a debate that he was losing.

Romney needs to reset foreign policy

Mitt Romney speaks at the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention

There is a case to be made for a Republican national security policy, but Mitt Romney has yet to make it, writes IISS-US Executive Director Andrew Parasiliti in the Huffington Post. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll showed that 52% of those surveyed thought Obama ‘would better handle’ foreign affairs than Romney, who tallied just 40%, and Romney’s recent overseas trip didn’t exactly burnish his foreign-policy credentials. Parasiliti argues that Romney needs more than ‘tired conservative platitudes designed primarily for the Republican base’ – in which he insists he is ‘tougher on Iran, a better friend to Israel, a more formidable adversary to Russia and China, and a bigger spender on defence’ – and should expand on a theme from a speech he gave last month: ‘A healthy American economy is what underwrites American power.’ Parasiliti points out that the same USA Today/Gallup that put Obama on top in foreign affairs put Romney ahead on the deficit and the economy. This pointed to an electoral advantage for the Republicans if they ‘develop and expand on this link between the economy and national security’.

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